It is the summer of 1950–and at the once-grand mansion of Buckshaw, young Flavia de Luce, an aspiring chemist with a passion for poison, is intrigued by a series of inexplicable events: A dead bird is found on the doorstep, a postage stamp bizarrely pinned to its beak. Then, hours later, Flavia finds a man lying in the cucumber patch and watches him as he takes his dying breath.
For Flavia, who is both appalled and delighted, life begins in earnest when murder comes to Buckshaw. “I wish I could say I was afraid, but I wasn’t. Quite the contrary. This was by far the most interesting thing that had ever happened to me in my entire life.”
What I Thought
The central focus of this novel is the character of Flavia de Luce, the 11 year-old phenom who narrates and carries the entire weight of this suspense-mystery novel. And she does it admirably, or, I should say, the author has created a character so well defined, so well fleshed out, with an array of quirks and foibles that, as a character, gives her such great depth. Quite something for a middle-aged male author to achieve. He’s made it so that Flavia de Luce is not only believable, she feels as real as any of my nieces … if they had lived in the 1950s, that is.
Flavia de Luce jumps straight out at you, grabs you by the arm, and starts talking to you as if you were a co-conspirator in her life and the unfolding mystery that lands on her doorstep — literally. Her thoughts are effervescent bubbles that pop to the surface, one after another, in a constant stream, bringing to life the action, the scenery and the characters that populate The Sweetness At The Bottom Of The Pie. And, through her, her thoughts and actions, the whole story comes brimming to life with the kind of detail that is also, at times, laugh out loud funny.
There is a great deal of astute and observational humour in this novel, that had me laughing, smirking, and nodding my head with a smile. I felt transported back to another time, and got lost in a 50s English countryside that felt, well, almost familiar to me. The places and setting were all lovingly described, and given their own little quirks as was Buckshaw, the de Luce’s country estate. Each as much a minor character in the story, as were the supporting characters themselves, who added just enough to carry the plot along at a delightful, slow-burn.
This is not a fast-paced, action-packed story, but a gentle bicycle ride through the winding back roads of Village life, its pace and setting reminiscent of a really good Agatha Christie novel. It’s all about the build up, about finding and fitting together the clues. Looking at suspects, making deductions and following ideas and inspiration in the way you imagine a young Sherlock Holmes might do.
This is most definitely Flavia de Luce’s story, and the other characters, including her immediate family, are there in support, and, as such, are not as fully defined in nature. But that isn’t to say they are paper thin, on the contrary, they all pop off the page with their own set of quirks and foibles—from the two older sisters Ophelia and Daphne, to her recluse stamp-collecting father, and his faithful servant and friend, Dogger.
Alan Bradley has created a richly detailed world that feels like it should exist, somewhere within the folds of the English countryside. Not only that, he’s populated a string of villages and homes with just the kind of characters you come to expect, if you’ve read a good Agatha Christie novel. And more, he’s made them all quite unique to this little corner of the world. A world that I’ve fallen in love with, along with the delightful Flavia de Luce and her family. I’m looking forward to seeing what other mysteries and murders Flavia will get involved in, and solve.
Welcome to the world of an 11 year-old Miss Marple, Flavia de Luce, armed with a bicycle named Gladys.
THE SWEETNESS AT THE BOTTOM OF THE PIE
Paperback, 373 pages